Matthew Burrows on thinking creatively about economics and community
With an exhibition at Hastings Contemporary of work selected from an open call via Artist Support Pledge, its founder, Matthew Burrows, explains what artists can learn from other disciplines and cultures.
Who is Matthew Burrows?
In 2020 painter Matthew Burrows set up Artist Support Pledge (ASP) in response to artists struggling financially due to lockdown. They were invited to post images of their work on Instagram using the ASP hashtag, with a maximum price of £200. Every time an artist achieved £1,000 of sales they pledged to spend £200 on another’s work. ASP has earned millions of pounds in sales for artists and an MBE among other accolades for Burrows. ASP can now be experienced in a real-life exhibition ‘A Generous Space’ at Hastings Contemporary, selected from an open call via ASP.
Caroline Watson, Introverts, 2018, selected for ‘A Generous Space’ © the artist
Q. How do you explore the economic success of creativity in relation to trust, generosity and community?
Before Artist Support Pledge there was Artist Support Projects [a peer critique and support network]. When I moved out of London around 2005 I became aware that, without the friendships that existed around the many artists’ studios that existed there, it was difficult to maintain a sense of community and of critical thinking around my work and that of my friends. It happens to a lot of artists when they’ve been out of formal education for five, 10 years. The network they’ve built up starts drifting away as people have a family or take different jobs. I realised I still had that network, I just needed to find a way to bring them together.
Artist Support Projects developed out of that in 2008. We’d meet three or four times a year for two to three days at a time. Initially, it was just me and a few mates but other people found out about it and realised it was getting results. I began to look at development ideas from business and elsewhere and changed them to fit how artists work. The things I initially focused on were: what can you be best at? What is most fundamental to who you are as an artist? What are your drivers and passions in life? And what conditions make you most productive?
It proved very effective at understanding the best environment for an individual to develop as an artist. Every year I’d look at a different area of expertise to see what could be adapted from it. So, for example, athletes train within seasons and within each season there are cycles of intensive training followed by time off. I recognised from talking to fellow artists that they have these cycles, too – a good period of work and then a wall. Once we realised that was natural to the way the body adapts, it was OK to say, ‘If I’ve worked intensively for three weeks, I’ve got to expect a week where I’m not going to be firing on all cylinders, so maybe I’ll do some research or see some exhibitions.’
As artists, if we can think creatively about how we are economic and look after ourselves and each other, we can employ all our skills much more effectively
Each year we would add a different question, such as: what are your values? If you understand what your life and work values are, it makes it much easier to make decisions. So, you can say, ‘OK, if someone gives me a critique, if it doesn’t reflect any of my values, then I can safely think it doesn’t matter. But if it does shine some light on that, I should pay attention.’
I also looked at things that were effectively doing bad and tried to turn them into something that would do good, which is what I did with ASP. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought: ‘OK, there’s a virus that’s spreading out there, so how can I create a spreading virus to do good?’ Which is why in the beginning we had the strapline ‘Generosity is infectious’.
Just like you have to scroll through Instagram to find the things you like on ASP, which is part of the joy of it, I want the exhibition to be an immersive experience in a similar way, what I often describe as a ‘wilderness of art’.
I don’t think ASP is a replacement for the gallery system, although that system may change anyway as a result of societal shifts as to what we think is fair and equitable. What’s interesting for me – and not just for the arts but maybe for other industries too – is to realise that there isn’t just one way of being economic. Unlike many capitalist cultures that believe in the super-wealthy individual, it’s the generous cultures that operate under a process that believes that the common good is the supreme success of that community – and that supports all life – that have not only survived for hundreds of thousands of years, but have done so without damaging the planet.
As artists, if we can think creatively and imaginatively about how we are economic and look after ourselves and each other, then, actually, we can employ all the skills we already have much more effectively.
Interview by Helen Sumpter.
A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
‘A Generous Space’ will be on at Hastings Contemporary until 18 April 2022. 50% off with National Art Pass.
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